Martin Robertson CA shares his experience starting his own practice
Falkirk-based accountant and business coach Martin Robertson CA is enthusiastic about MTD’s potential as an enabler, but wary of ‘shiny toy’ syndrome, he tells Fraser Allen
Had life turned out differently, Martin Robertson CA might have made a living on the playing field. “I dreamt of being a professional footballer, but an eye accident aged 12 put paid to that,” says Martin, who grew up on the Moray coast, in north-east Scotland. “From then on, all I wanted to be was an accountant. The only two reasons that I can think for that was that my mental arithmetic was unusually good, and a barman at my parents’ hotel was an accountant.”
The desire to work for himself was also there early on. “During my first week of CA training, my manager asked what I would do once I qualified,” he says. “I said I’d start my own practice.” Martin had two spells at Johnston Carmichael in Elgin, either side of a brief spell at BDO in Ayr. “There was the opportunity to work my way up to become a partner at Johnston Carmichael but it wasn’t to be, possibly as I suffered from imposter syndrome for much of my early career.”
Opting for a new career in a new town, he moved to Glasgow the morning after his thirtieth birthday. He loved the city, but his hopes of switching sectors were dashed. Needing to earn money, he advertised his services on a self-employed basis. “I secured a good client straight away and decided to start my own practice,” he says.
That was in 1996. Martin Robertson Associates has subsequently moved eastwards to Falkirk, with his wife Susanne joining as a partner. Like any practice in business for decades, there have been ups and downs. “For many years, family life was more important to me than business life,” says Martin, who lost his sister to a brain tumour and himself endured long Covid. Now, though, with a grown-up daughter and health restored, the Robertsons have placed a renewed focus on business growth: “Over the past three years, fee income has increased by 58% and profits by 120%. I’m enjoying moving the business forward in an even more client-focused way.”
Over the years, Martin has thought deeply about the lessons learnt from building up his own practice from scratch and, with the help of Susanne, he developed those observations into a book, Your 60 Minute Business Transformation, published in 2014. They also run a coaching, mentoring and training company, We Are Business Transformers, parallel to the CA practice.
However strong your business, there are always challenges to be tackled. Three issues are currently at the front of Martin’s mind: keeping new business sustainable, getting in front of his ideal clients and making the right choices with MTD. “More than any time since I started, I’m finding potential clients are more interested in the lowest fee rather than value for money,” he says. “We’ve also tried many ways to engage with our ideal clients – telemarketing, email campaigns and networking – but building a reputation as a coach and a mentor has definitely been the best way forward.”
Martin is enthusiastic but cautious about embracing the digital era. “I’m always looking at new software to make the practice more efficient,” he says. “There are so many options, and it takes time to review them and make decisions. We changed suppliers for our accounts and taxation software a couple of years ago and are delighted with our choice. Now we’re looking at software to systemise our emails, to allow us to manage all client contacts, making sure all staff can see all client communications. But we’ve made better progress with MTD than we expected and almost all our clients are now on some form of digital platform.”
Martin attended ICAS’ Digital Practice conference earlier this year. “My mindset prior to the event was that digitalising the practice was all about being more efficient,” he says. “But as Will Farnell [chartered accountant and author] pointed out, the biggest advantage of technology is that it can get you closer to your clients and free up more time for you to speak to them.”
As a result, Martin is interested in exploring new tools, and then looking at how AI might prove useful. “However, it’s easy in a small practice to get dazzled by shiny new toys and test a million things without making any real progress,” he says. “It’s important to be disciplined.”
Eight lessons learned
Martin Robertson shares nuggets of advice from his book:
1. Put great systems in place so everyone knows what they need to do.
2. Encourage staff to think for themselves.
3. Find a good business mentor to use as a sounding board.
4. Consider your own needs as well as those of your staff and clients.
5. Bad stuff happens – don’t stress.
6. Start with an end in mind. Put a plan and milestones in place and measure your progress religiously.
7. Don’t chase and accept all clients; aim to work with your ideal clients as soon as possible.
8. Take at least one proper holiday a year where you can only be contacted in an emergency.